Schmidtie is a dinosaur. Or, more accurately, he is something rare but not extinct, the natural habitat of which has dramatically shrunk: Schmidtie would be something stolid and careful and quiet; maybe a buffalo, wearing white bucks (see below).
Schmidtie -- officially, Albert Schmidt, but called Schmidtie by anyone who is or wants to be his friend -- is a 78-year-old poster child for the vanished empire of the WASP.
For much of America's history, it was the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Eastern elite that governed, made policy, and controlled the upper levels of government and the law and the financial and banking worlds, and in many ways defined American taste and social standards and represented our version of an aristocracy. Today, there are reservations within which they still exist, certain clubs and neighborhoods in Manhattan and the Hamptons, for example, and certain professions such as trust fund wastrel, preserving the old ways and carrying forward the traditions of their forbears.
Schmidtie has a mark against him compared to others of his publicity-shy tribe: he's been portrayed by Jack Nicholson. Louis Begley's previous novels include "About Schmidt," which was made into a movie directed by Alexander Payne and starring Jack Nicholson as Schmidt.
"Schmidt Steps Back" is the third Schmidt novel, out of Begley's nine novels, with his others including "Wartime Lies," a finalist for the National Book Award.
One of Begley's metiers is the white-shoe law firm, for which Schmidt might be the icon (in the natural history sense of the term, as an illustration of a particular species).
William Safire wrote a 1997 New York Times essay on the term "white shoe": "the casual, carefully scuffed buckskin shoes with red rubber soles and heels worn by generations of college men at Ivy League schools. Many of these kids, supposedly never changing their beloved footgear, went on to become masters of the universe on Wall Street and in the best-known law firms. A further gloss would wrap up not just prestigious professional-service and financial firms, but big, old, East Coast and fairly traditional ones."
A further, further gloss comes from a 2010 posting on the "Johnson" blog of "The Economist": "I was tempted to put 'white-shoe' on our journalese blacklist, but I'll hold off, and just file it under frozen terms. There isn't a great replacement for it. The term used to hint at WASPishness, the kind of place that didn't promote Jews, but times have thankfully changed."
It is the thankfully changed times and their weathering by the white shoe brotherhood (its classic iteration was pretty exclusively male) that Begley explores in "Schmidt Steps Back," which begins on New Year's Eve, 2008, and ends on New Year's Day, 2009. In between, the story is devoted to the past, and to events beginning in the 1990s that lay out the plot and the stakes giving weight to the novel's present.
Born in Poland and with an early life caught in the upheaval of World War II, Louis Begley came to the United States as a teen and eventually went to Harvard and into a law career from which he retired in 2004. Begley is a meticulous, elegant, classically narrative-driven novelist of manners, and his careful sentences in "Schmidt Steps Back" mimetically represent the inner state of his protagonist, a man for whom correctness in all its forms, from grammar to behavior and etiquette to food and driving and politics and governance and morality is perhaps the ultimate law. However, the novel's life springs from Schmidt's very human, and both conscious and unconscious, inability to stay on the right side of his own bright lines concerning how to conduct a life.
"Schmidt Steps Back" is a love story, in which Schmidt wins, then loses, then tries to win back Alice, the French widow of a colleague at the firm from which he took early retirement to care for his terminally ill wife Ruth. It is the question of whether he can pull it off, the winning-back, that provides the throughline and energy driving the plot here. Schmidt at 78 is a foundation director who lives in Bridgehampton and Manhattan, best friend of a billionaire who acts as a deus ex machina throughout the story, thanks to his money and influence making things possible that couldn't otherwise happen. Schmidt himself is a quiet millionaire, but much too old school to ever talk much about money, even to himself.
As the novel begins, his beloved Alice is coming from Paris for New Year's -- the first time they will have seen each other in 15 years. The reasons for the 15-year hiatus occupy the bulk of the novel: a period of turmoil in Schmidt's life, but turmoil cushioned by his life among the 1 percent. The novel ends with Alice and Schmidtie celebrating a New Year and possibly new lives, the result -- like much of Schmidt's personal and professional life -- of hard-won self-knowledge and careful negotiation.
Begley provides a nimbus of other effectively alive characters, from a former younger lover of Schmidt's who's now married and pregnant with a child who might be Schmidt's; to a philandering filmmaker who offers a kind of "don't let this happen to you" model for Schmidt to quietly observe in terms of how to handle aging; to Charlotte, Schmidt's only child, with whom he has a fraught, wrenching relationship that he aches to make better.
Speaking of deus ex machina -- there's an arbitrariness to some plot elements here that rises to the level of noticeability. Several key events in the novel happen with a feeling more of authorial intervention than that of nature or fate or even chance.
In addition, bones could be picked over Schmidt's self-knowledge about his subtle prejudices -- key plot points turn on Jewishness and homosexuality -- and how Begley chooses to explore the characters' interactions with these things.
Nevertheless, "Schmidt Steps Back" is quietly satisfying, and even at 78, Schmidt is full of undeniable life and an entertaining, self-deprecating, wry understanding of the ways his world, and ours, works.
Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer and critic.
Schmidt Steps Back
By Louis Begley
369 pages, $25.95